It’s always a pleasure to find a good piece of indigenous fiction, and to support the career of a Canadian author. This is especially true when the author actually writes science fiction or fantasy; Canada is severely under-represented in both genres. There are not nearly enough Canadian voices in science fiction, and the Canadian presence in fantasy is also sparse. Both the bright future and the rich past of this nation have been neglected for far too long by the voyageurs of the imagination.
Enter Lisa Smedman, a Vancouver-based writer with many other successful novels already under her belt. Smedman’s “The Apparition Trail” is a heady combination of historical fantasy and science fiction--steampunk with a Canadian twist.
The book offers us a wide array of real historical characters, in a setting which Canadian readers will find both familiar and strange. These are the North-West Territories of the 1880’s, which at the time included every scrap of land from the border of British Columbia to southern Ontario and Quebec. The action is set mostly in the area now known as Alberta and Saskatchewan, and those Prairies are full of their well-known turmoil and strife: all the traditional players are on the scene, from the newly formed North-West Mounted Police to the famous Native chiefs. The difference is that in this alternate universe, magic exists. The old mystical powers, long dormant and believed dead, have suddenly returned full force in the fateful year of 1877.
The cause of this event is somewhat hazy; we know only that a passing comet struck the moon a glancing blow and turned the “dark side” toward the earth, changing the face of the night sky forever. The implications of the change are many, however, and Smedman explores them deeply in her novel. From the very first pages, the author makes it clear that we are no longer trapped in the mundane world of our own history books. The technology of this world is powered not by steam and coal, but by perpetual motion devices. These wonderful engines make all sorts of fascinating new machines possible, from a flying bicycle to a mechanical homing pigeon, or an eerily silent train.
“The Apparition Trail” is the story of Marmaduke Grayburn, a Corporal in the North-West Mounted Police. The year is 1884, and Grayburn’s life is both difficult and dangerous. Tension increases daily between the displaced Native bands and the white settlers of the Territories. The Natives of the region are in dire straits. The buffalo have become scarce, and smallpox outbreaks are common. Three brutally hard winters have seen the people eating their own horses and dogs—sometimes even turning on each other. On the brink of extinction, their suffering has made them bold. More and more often they make sorties against the settlers and the builders of the railroad, defying the white man’s law and the men who are duty-bound to enforce it. Grayburn and his comrades in the NWMP have their hands full, trying to keep the peace.
Students of Canada’s history will be nodding their heads up to this point; in the real world, these were the events that once led up to a Metis uprising and the rebellion of the Cree. But the re-emergence of magic into this version of Canada’s past has spiced up the scenario quite a bit. The same mystical forces that allow white men to create a perpetual motion device have also given force to the ancient spells and ceremonies of a medicine man. A Native shaman has the power to kill with his coup stick, to walk unseen, or transform himself into a spirit animal. Given enough cooperation, the Cree and the Blackfoot might even have enough mojo at their disposal to bring about the legendary Day of Changes, which was to the Native believer what the long-awaited Rapture is to a modern-day Christian. With the use of tribal sorcery, they might make the fever dreams of a vanquished people come true--the white settlers could be magically banished from the North-West Territories forever, while the buffalo returned to darken the plain once more.
In other words, we have a conflict of epic scale on our hands, with many lives at stake, and all the ingredients for a truly ripping tale of adventure. The author walks the tight-rope between the two sides of this war with grace and sympathy, giving both the Mounties and their rebellious Native foes the humanity they deserve, and larding both sides with heroes and villains. In the meantime, she also serves up a fun, fast-paced yarn with several unexpected twists. “The Apparition Trail” is solid entertainment.